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NASA's Mars rover makes daring touchdown on Red Planet (+video)

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rocket-powered sky crane lowered Curiosity to the Martian surface on cables, then flew off and crash-landed intentionally a safe distance away after the rover's six wheels hit the red dirt. The ambitious maneuver capped a landing sequence that NASA officials have dubbed "seven minutes of terror." 

With the landing, the Curiosity rover wrapped up an eight-month voyage across 352 million miles to reach Mars, where the robot now faces an ambitious two-year mission.

Word of the touchdown came via NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter, which relayed signals from Curiosity to Earth. Curiosity couldn't ping Earth directly, because Mars' rotation took the rover out of contact with our planet just before it landed. [Photos: How Curiosity's Crazy Landing Works]

The successful landing is a huge moment for NASA and the future of robotic planetary exploration, which is imperiled by budget cuts. NASA is counting on Curiosity's $2.5 billion mission — which is officially known as the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL — to generate excitement about the agency's exploration efforts and, perhaps, bring some of the lost funding back.

"We're on Mars again," NASA chief Charlie Bolden said just minutes after Curiosity touched down. "It doesn't get any better than this."

Assessing Martian habitability

Curiosity can now get to work. Its main task is to determine if the Gale Crater area is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life. It sports 10 scientific instruments to aid in this task, including a rock-zapping laser and gear that can identify organic compounds, the carbon-containing building blocks of life as we know it.

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